One man's trash; another man's treasure. The movement to reclaim urban space in New York City inspired communities to start recycling, sourcing their food locally, reusing and re-purposing their waste and the "garbage" of others. (Shandra Furtado/Planet Forward)
Art to inspire: The case for sustainable consumerism
On the reservation, you are constantly reminded of the cultural loss of a harmonious lifestyle with the land. Consumerism and acts of violence against the native people from European Americans took away more than a lifestyle, leaving trauma and broken human hearts in its wake.
As an European American growing up on tribal lands, I saw glimpses of the mindset that allowed humans to co-exist with animal and plant ecosystems in many of the native traditions. One example is through hunting; there is a respect for the animal that you are preparing to eat. There is a careful preservation of each part of the animal to be used for leather, antler bone, and meat for food to regalia. I also saw knowledge of local plants and what they offer (or how they can harm) humans. The lifestyle was social, efficient, and sustainable, but none of it sprung out of a desire to be environmentally friendly; native communities simply live this way to survive and enjoy life.
In the city I am constantly exposed to extraneous resources. It is almost laughably easy to find free food, furniture, or even clothes! The major difference is the availability of land for plants and living spaces. There was a huge movement in the Lower East Side to reclaim urban spaces for community in the late 70’s and 80’s. It sprung partially out of a need for safety and security, and partially for the lack of monetary resources available in the neighborhood. The increase in abandoned land and buildings made it increasingly unsafe for the remaining residents, so there was a movement to take back this land from its absentee “owner” and use it for community good. This was the impetus for local gardens grown on empty lots, squatters refurbishing and making abandoned and broken buildings safe again. The mindset wasn’t out of a need to become environmentally friendly, but these communities started recycling, sourcing their food locally, reusing and re-purposing their waste and the “garbage” of others. They became sustainable and happy from creating a sub-culture and way of life within New York City that didn’t rely on consumerism.
In New York City and on the reservation, I saw that sustainability can grow out of a need; not just an ethical sensibility or a desire to become more efficient. Today we see a lot of differences pointed out in the media between rural and urban communities – which may distract us from environmental issues – but why not examine the common sustainable ingenuity arising out of the simple will to survive anywhere?
As an artist these revelations and others like them have inspired my work, but I hope that these communities can inspire more than that. I want to be a part a movement of people who are re-thinking how they fulfill their needs without consumerism. We should be looking to those who had no choice but to develop their own community sans consumerism, or those who had lost faith in consumerism because it could no longer serve their needs. Let’s not try to re-invent the wheel, let’s do this together with past generations wisdom to rely on.